Aldanio Carvalho, a chemical engineer, is helping Recife's poor obtain solid, affordable housing by producing cheap, sturdy bricks and providing technical assistance to resident-builders.
The New Idea
Seventy percent of Brazil's people live in cities, and the bulk of them cannot afford quality housing. Lowering the cost of homebuilding would simultaneously cut their expenses and build up an important form of savings; for many families, accumulating bricks in the favela home site is analogous to developing a bank savings account. Better housing also means more self-respect, less of the family-damaging friction that flows from too close quarters, and a bit more room for children to use to study in relative quiet. Aldanio sees his task, then, as meeting the technical and organizational needs of these poor families, who must build their homes themselves with very little money or help.
Bricks constitute the largest single cost most such self-help builders must bear, in many cases roughly half the cash costs. Therefore, Aldanio has given priority attention to developing new ways of producing low-cost bricks.
His main challenge has been to develop a durable brick that does not need the expensive step of firing. The standard alternative has been to "press" bricks from easily available ingredients, chiefly clay. But pressed bricks, especially if used near the boot of a building, are likely to absorb moisture from the ground and crumble. They also suffer from slashing water, such as rain bouncing off the ground against the bottom of a wall.
Aldanio has found a new way of solving this problem at very low cost. By adding to his brick mixes certain widely available industrial wastes, e.g., from paint-making, he's now able to produce non-fired bricks that solidly withstand such watery threats.
He's also developed production processes and equipment that allow him to produce thousands of such bricks, realizing economies of scale. He's now hoping to open a pilot, self-supporting brick factory in the Recife area. As he gains experience with the first production unit and further refines the process, and as demand firms up, the factory's design foresees the addition of other modular production units.
Although Aldanio expects these new low-cost, durable bricks to provide a powerful incentive for self-help homebuilders in poor communities, and hopefully an economic base for his organization, he knows they alone are not enough. That's why he especially wants to attract community groups as partners.
"We have to find equally alternative and adequate methods for planning, for capturing and using financing, and for administering projects," he says. Consequently Aldanio's nonprofit organization, HABITEC, backs up its sale of bricks and equipment with comprehensive technical and organizational support programs.
Brazil acknowledges a housing shortage of 10 million units. Assuming five people per family, that means that more than a third of the population does not have minimally acceptable homes. This shortfall chiefly affects families who earn less than $200 a month, such as the thousands of new rural immigrants on the periphery of Recife where Aldanio is implementing his plan.Most efforts to cut costs for self-help homebuilders have been disappointing, either because they've assumed an uneconomic household-by-household scale of production, or because alternative materials have not proved to be of long-term value. There has been a baleful history of community groups agreeing to try an alternative technology or material only to discover a year or so later that their building is disintegrating. These experiences do not encourage new experiments.
Aldanio has created a private, non-profit enterprise, HABITEC, to bring together the people and resources his ambitious plan requires. He's also created the companion Pro-Habitar Foundation, a council of community leaders, to represent the community and engage many of its key organizations.Given the current economic crunch in Brazil, Aldanio may not immediately find full financing for his brick factory. Even if he does face such a delay, he and his colleagues can still produce at a modest scale. Using first-generation equipment, Aldanio has been able to produce 6,000 bricks a day. The first module of the new facility he's trying to finance will produce 10,000 low-cost bricks a day. As he refines the process and its connection with community groups, he hopes to open similar units in other regions.
HABITEC sells its bricks in conjunction with an overall community housing plan, a key point that distinguishes it from many previous attempts to provide new appropriate building technologies. A HABITEC technical team will help community groups design a project, attract building funds, and manage construction efficiently. HABITEC's charter requires it to function autonomously and independently of political or economic influences and to serve poor communities.
Even at this stage Aldanio has begun to spread his ideas in and beyond Brazil's Northeast. Recently he was able to get the UN Development Program to publish a brief study of his work.
Aldanio's father was a curious mix of socialist ideals and business savvy. He read widely and encouraged his children to read and discuss social issues and philosophy. Of the eight children, Aldanio became the most interested in social thought. Aldanio's father also ran clothing stores and, after retirement, bought one of his own. The children helped out in the store, but none followed in their father's commercial footsteps.When he was 13, Aldanio was shocked when the priest who taught him philosophy at a Catholic school was assassinated, presumably by the military for activism against military rule. In school he wrote poetry and was drawn toward journalism but settled on engineering as a career. Aldanio took part in student organizations but always maintained star-student status and helped change the way engineering courses were taught.
In college, Aldanio had an opportunity to work on a nuclear program in Germany, but he turned it down for reasons of conscience. After graduation, he worked briefly in the quality-control department of a soft-drink bottling company, but he found the work boring and confining and felt he'd rather serve the public. A friend was elected to the city government in Cabo, and Aldanio went to work in her populist administration. There he began developing the housing materials and construction program that has become HABITEC.